Four plays, two of them by Edward Albee who died this year.
The Goat or Who is Sylvia? premiered in 2002 and is about a man who falls in love with a goat. It’s a play that “takes the idea of sexual transgression against sexual norms and pushes it further than most playwrights would dare.” (Stephen Bottoms). It crosses other boundaries too. As far as genre is concerned it is both an absurdist comedy of manners and a tragedy. In ancient Greek, the word tragedy means goat song and Albee seems to reference that meaning in this modern version of a tragic event. As a gay man living through the 20th century, Albee knew what it was like to be an outsider. In this play he challenges how far our so-called tolerant, liberal society has really come. Bestiality is one step too far for his protagonist’s family and friends. In this production at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Martin (Damien Lewis), the somewhat bemused protagonist, appears to have a perfect life as husband, father and friend, until the fateful day he falls in love with a goat, Sylvia. As his obsession is revealed, his happiness is doomed, his downfull inevitable. His wife, Stevie, played by the mesmerising Sophie Okonedo, hurt and furious, rants and raves, breaks ornaments and mirrors until the ruin of their marriage literally lies in pieces around them. At the end of the production when her revenge reaches its climax (no spoiler here for those who don’t know the play) the walls begin to close in on what remains of their lives. A telling stage metaphor. The two central characters dominate the play. Both actors are charismatic, making you share the anguish of their destroyed marriage. The other two cast members give well-judged performances too. Jason Hughes as Russ, the friend, starts off with bantering exchanges man to man, but gradually becomes horrified when he learns the identity of his friend’s mistress. Archie Madekwe, making his professional debut, is impressive as the bewildered son who sees his family breaking up. The play is on for only a short season, but see it if you can. It’s laugh aloud funny and tragic. It plays straight through in 90 minutes and makes an emotional impact that is lasting.
The other Edward Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginea Woolf also portrays the disintegration of a marriage. Made famous by the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film that echoed the destructive forces at work in their off-stage marriage, it’s difficult to put aside those performances and come fresh to the play with a different cast. I wanted to see this production because, just as I would go to any play that featured the wonderful Sophie Okonedo so I would one with Imelda Staunton. How lucky was I to see them bothat their magnificent best in the course of two days. The current production at The Harold Pinter theatre is powerful, funny and moving. Tiny as she is, Staunton as Martha is a formidable force, snapping at her husband’s Achilles’ heels like a demented terrier. She struts around the stage, a sexual predator intent on seducing the new lecturer, Nick (Luke Treadaway) and in the final act when George (Conleth Hill) gets his revenge at last the mood changes and she becomes a broken woman, unable to cope. Hill plays the husband as a bumbling failure who has not achieved the heights in academia he (or she) planned and his wife refuses to let him forget that. A big man, clumsy in comparison with the spry Martha, he lumbers about as if ill at ease in his somewhat overweight body, it’s easy to feel sorry for him and be pleased when he has his moments of comeuppance. The young couple, whom Martha and George are determined to shift from their comfort zone, also add to the success of the production. I admired the stiff correctness of Treadaway Nick and his attempts to stand up for himself. As for Imogen Poots, she was delightful as the rather silly young wife out of depth in the company she finds herself. Her body language and facial expressions said it all. It was easy to imagine that in twenty or thirty years their marriage would deteriorate into one as unhappy and vicious as that of the older couple. A gruelling piece of theatre but the revival was well worth seeing because of the quality of the acting and the difference in interpretation of the roles.
Travesties by Tom Stoppard is a play of his that I hadn’t seen before. Some theatre-goers think that Stoppard is too clever by half and that his plays lack emotional content. He is certainly a wit and a wordsmith and this particular play is full of references to historical figures – as well as playing games with the plot and language of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is aimed at, if not an intellectual audience, at least an reasonably informed one. Gathering from the response – lots of appreciative laughter throughout – the members of the audience at the Apollo Theatre were well equipped to cope with Stoppard’s clever script. The play is set in Zurich during the first world war and the story is filtered through the failing memory of Henry Carr, a member of the British consulate. He’s an unreliable narrator but this adds to the hilarity of the play. Tom Hollander as Henry Carr, brilliant as the little man caught up in events he doesn’t always understand, is well supported by Freddie Fox as Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist, who helped revolutionize poetry and art, Forbes Masson as political revolutionary, Lenin, and Peter McDonald as James Joyce, the modernist who revolutionized literature . In keeping with this inherent desire to free language and politics from restraints, is the the interweaving of scenes, quotes and misquotes from Oscar Wilde’s The importance of Being Earnest. A reminder of his doctrine of aestheticism – art for art’s sake – and his epigrammatic style that ridiculed Victorian intolerance. The conceit is that a production of Wilde’s play is to be put on in bourgeois Zurich and Henry is to play Algernon. In Henry’s muddled memory, real events are indistinguishable from reality and that is why fictional characters, Gwedolen and Cecily, exist alongside historical ones and why Travesties is an appropriate title. An enoyable evening in which not only Stoppard is given the opportunity to flex his knowledge but also the audience.
The Miser at the Garrick Theatre is advertised as Moliere’s classic comedy freely adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter. The plot is taken from the original. although Moliere himself stole the plot from Plautus, and the costumes and setting of the period appeared authentic. What was lacking was the French elegance of style one would expect. Instead the adaptation found its own form in a series of comic routines in the English style with lots of topical jokes thrown in. Before I get too snooty about this I should make it clear that Moliere’s main concern was to make the audience laugh but some of the references and jokes of a play written 350 years ago wouldn’t mean much to audiences today. As Sean Foley, adaptor and director, points out, the plot is archetypal and timeless and the characters stock, straight from la comedia del arte. The subjects that make people laugh don’t change: death, sex and money. The production is fast paced and fun. A romp. I laughed a lot, but the plot is so predictable I did find myself looking at my watch at times. I like to become involved in a play and this was like an elongated sketch with few surprises. I could, however, appreciate the performances. Two actors shone out, the ones with the best roles, Griff Rhys Jones as the miser, Harpagon, and Lee Mack, Maitre Jacques and a plethora of other roles, signalled by changes of hats and/or costumes. The history of these actors as standup comedians stood them in good stead for the audience rapport they both achieved. Rhys Jones’s long speech to the audience at the beginning of the second half was side-achingly funny, only matched by Lee Mack’s continual asides to the audience, keeping it up with the vagaries of the plot. They are undoubtedly masters of comedy and I could appreciate their work even if this genre of theatre is not really my bag. If a good laugh is what you like, see it. Don’t expect subtlety or depth of character. One of the jokes that was slipped in referred to Michael Billington’s review of the production in The Guardian: Lee Mack pulls a face and mocks, ‘Michael Billington 3 stars.’ Indeed.